He does not start out looking like an advertisement for saintliness. Born in France during World War One to a New Zealand father and an American mother, his family were peripatetic artists with a tendency towards tragedy, moving to the suburbs of New York City, where a younger brother was born and where his mother died when he was six years old. After a time staying with his maternal grandparents his painter father took him on extended trips to Cape Cod and Bermuda, finally returning to France where he was enrolled in a French boarding school. In his early teens his father (who would die of a brain tumour when Merton was fourteen) moved him to board at a day school in London, followed by moving to a public school a few hours away. He attended Cambridge for a disastrous year at Clare College, after which his London godfather/guardian advised him to return to the US and continue his education there. All this was not a propitious start for any kind of religious figure, certainly not one who might be a saint for some.
At Columbia University he acquired a reputation as a gifted writer, aspiring poet and serious thinker who played loud jazz on any available piano. He loved Gandhi, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, James Joyce, William Blake, modern art, and most Marx Brothers movies. A book by Aldous Huxley’s opened him to the idea “there such a thing as a supernatural order [which]… which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” At the same time a Hindu monk led him to read to Saint Augustine and Thomas a’Kempis. Along with the influence of several significant university teachers, this led him to be baptised in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 21. With his customary boldness and enthusiasm several years later he joined the Trappists in their monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, taking vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and conversion of committing to a daily rule of frequent prayer, worship and manual labour in community. Later he would write, “I wanted to give God everything... to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
Merton joined the monastery intending to spend his life as a simple monk. But found “there was this shadow… this writer who had followed me into the cloister…. He rides my shoulders … I cannot lose him.” As he goes on to write, “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.” But Merton’s abbot encouraged him to write his autobiography, telling the story of how he found peace in the hills of Kentucky, and The Seven Story Mountain became a world-wide bestseller. Although the work of a young man and recent convert, it is still a refreshing and engaging read. Merton’s enthusiasm might have got him in trouble on two continents, but it also opened him to seeing God’s glory in the most surprising places and his account of the journey is a consistently joyous and enjoyable one. His tone changes a few years later in his next spiritual journal, The Sign of Jonah, where he shares his daily theological reading and reflections as well as questions, triumphs and times when nothing makes sense. It is both a touching and an honest account of one man’s prayerful journey following Christ.
The journal that followed, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, adds a new dimension of love and acceptance when Merton is opened to a new understanding of God’s love for the world on a busy downtown street in Louisville following a dental appointment. He wrote:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….
Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion… though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race… And if only everybody could realise this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things.… My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!
The more than forty books that follow - dealing with sanctity, spirituality and prayer, eastern and western mysticism, war and peace, economics and ethic, racism and materialism - are increasingly hallowed by his substantial studies in Christian Scripture and tradition, as well as a deep and disciplined life of prayer, and a graceful and growing sense of his own witness in God’s love for the world. He had reached a crucial junction in the journey. As Merton said to his young students in the monastery; “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.”
His writing after that was both grounded in silence and prayer as well as a more compassionate understanding of the world. As he wrote: “It is not difficult to sit in a quiet monastery and meditate on love, humility, mercy, inner silence, meditation and peace. But ‘no man is an island’… Therefore my meditation on love and peace must be realistically and intimately related to the fury of war, bloodshed, burning, destruction, killing that takes place on the other side of the earth.”
The French poet, Charles Peguy, writes that, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." But for Merton it ends in something deeper than politics, born of the gift of knowing and loving himself as a part of a world found and reconciled in Christ. By the mid 1960s Merton found his way home in the world in a manner that would have never seemed possible in his earlier life. “To choose the world is to choose the work I am able to do, in collaboration with my brother [and sister] to make the world better, more free, more just, more liveable, more human.” His writing became more politically aware, even his poetry found nourishment from newspaper headlines.
By 1965, after twenty years in community, Merton moved to a small house not far from the monastery. Paradoxically this new hermitage meant he was free to be with people -- more than he had been for years: It was a new rhythm where days of silence and solitude were varied by joining old friends for picnics; and when official ecclesiastical visits outside the monastery might end up with listening to jazz in a Louisville nightclub.
By the late sixties Merton was also writing about other world religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Sufism, finding that this opened him to deeper understanding of the mystical tradition within Christianity. In late 1968, twenty-seven years after entering the monastery, he left on an Asian pilgrimage, meeting with Christian, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu monks and practitioners, including the Dalai Lama. He found them practicing a quality of life and relationship that seemed very close to what he had found in the monastery. As he had written years earlier, “We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.”
It was to be an open-ended journey, but ended tragically on December 10 1968. After giving a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” at an inter-religious conference in Bangkok, Merton went to his room for a midday shower and fell against an ungrounded fan, which electrocuted him, killing him instantly. In a sad irony, his body was flown home alongside the bodies of young men who had just died in Vietnam, a war he had protested against for years. Perhaps this was his last act of solidarity within the world he had come to love so much. Mourners from all over the world came to his funeral at Gethsemane and one writer said a surprisingly large and wide variety of people looked like they had lost their very best friend.
I understand this completely when I consider Merton’s life, what I have learned from him over the years from his writings, his reflections, the gifts of a life of prophecy, penance and prayer shared with the larger world. He offered a disciplined mind, a discerning spirit, an open heart: and the gift of his witness has changed my world. Perhaps we all need to know we have a heart before we give it away, but Merton’s lifelong courageous witness means I can walk the way of Christian faith to seek and share with less caution, and with more candour and honesty. I know I am not alone in this.
For me he is a prophet, one of those times in the history of the Church when the windows open and old ideas get blown away with a fresh spirit of renewed understandings and possibilities. So in all the diversity of his life and vocation as a monk, writer, poet and priest, Thomas Merton calls out as a rather delightfully inconsistent saint and prophet to the whole Church and to the wider world, calls out both for a wider and a deeper understanding of the primary aims and attitudes of the religious life. With all the breadth of his early wanderings he found a home in the heart of Christianity and in his deep solitude he shared his pilgrim journey with the whole world. As a pioneer of interfaith conversation, his wide-open appreciation of how different spiritual traditions might breathe together continues to deepen our understanding of spirit, much as a trip to a foreign place will help us to know - and love - our homeland anew.
As the Buddhist master Bankei writes, “the farther one enters into truth, the deeper it is.” Throughout his life Thomas Merton journeyed in search of the face of God. His prayerful considerations on the way still bear fruit, continuing to nurture and enlighten new readers and seekers in fresh ways. Almost fifty years after his death, newly published journals, poetry, letters and essays continue to be released, enlarging our understanding of Merton's vision of a world reconciled in Christ. This twentieth century spiritual master makes a delightful companion on our faithful journey and I commend him to you.